Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

Why we don’t always believe victims

It would seem a no-brainer, if you are a decent human being, that you would listen to and believe people who report abuse and bullying. But we don’t, and it is important to look at why if that’s ever going to change.

Bullies and abusers don’t go along with being called out. They deny everything, or they tell you that they are the real victim and the person who first clamed victimhood is really the bully. There are bullies who, as part of their routine, accuse their victims of attacking them. If two people are claiming to be victims of each other, the idea of always believing the victim doesn’t stand up very well, because you may not know who it is. More thoughts on this over here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2018/07/28/calling-out-abusers/

Most of us have a morality that depends to some degree on relationship. So we tend to believe the people we care about and disbelieve the people we don’t know or care about if that threatens someone we like. We also don’t want to believe that we love someone abusive, so we look for reasons to explain away claims of abusive behaviour.

Victim blaming is widespread. Many of us have internalised some of that.

Abusers know what they are doing, and around people who are not their victims, they act in ways that hide this. We are persuaded because they were always so nice to us. In public, they may have seemed like exemplary spouses and parents. They may tell us, with great love and concern how worried they are about the poor mental health and strange beliefs of their victim. We may sympathise, and go on to not believe the victim when they confide in us.

Victims are usually in distress. If they’ve suffered gaslighting, been blamed and made responsible, they may feel it is all their fault. If the bully has persuaded the victim that the victim is the bully, you’re going to have a hard time figuring out what to believe. I am inclined to take care of people who are afraid and distressed and seeking safety. I tend to disbelieve people who are angry and demanding retribution. I look at the power balances. I also figure, if I get this wrong, the angry person is probably better resourced to take care of themselves. It’s not foolproof. Nothing is.

An un-nuanced approach that goes ‘I always believe victims’ can be deeply threatening if you are someone whose abuser has cast them in the role of the bully. If you have had your reality dismantled in this way, this is such a hard thing to deal with. For a long time, I believed myself to be an awful person, deserving of any punishment that came my way. For some years now, I’ve lived in a strange, inbetween place where some days I think I have experienced gaslighting in the past, and some days I think I’m an awful person who deserves everything they get. On the good days, I dare to think I might get over having been made responsible in this way. I’m able to write this because today is a good day.

On a bad day, a flat statement about always believing victims can, and has panicked me. I think about the people (there were several) who were so loud and confident about being my victims, and how knocked down and powerless I felt in face of them. There is always the fear one of them will come back for another go and that they will be believed, and I will not. And the fear that no matter how hard I try, I am so inherently awful that I can only cause harm. On a good day, I think that’s the gaslighting impacting on me.

And I also know that for some people, any experience of being said no to, any criticism, any less than perfectly positive feedback counts as an attack. I know that several of the people in my history experienced me as a terrible person because I couldn’t give them what they needed. I did not prove kind, patient, generous, forgiving, understanding and co-operative enough for them and they experienced that insufficiency as abusive. They’re not making it up, it was their experience of me, and some of them I have seen go through similar issues with other people.

Abuse and bullying are really complicated. A superficial response that says ‘I will always believe victims’ and doesn’t dig into the mechanics and specifics of anything it encounters, is not a magic solution to the woes of the world.


Ideals in love

Teenage me didn’t just want to be understood. I wanted someone with whom I could entirely merge and in whom I could lose myself. I wanted my twin soul, my soul mate, my one true love, the one perfect person who would be all the things. It would be fair to say that I did not find these qualities in any of the people I fell in love with.

Twenty something me wanted a sense of connection, an intuitive bond that would bring magic into my life. At that point I was very much more interested in the possibility of a wild and fulfilling sex life, although a fair way from achieving that. I was much more interested in who I could love than who might love me in return.

In my thirties I started to learn what it could mean to have someone love me in return with the same kind of depth and passion I bring to my relationships. I stopped wanting the ease of automatic understanding and became much more interested in the work of understanding people who are not like me, and loving people in a way that includes much more room for difference.

A few years into my forties and I note how far away I am from that young human who wanted a magical connection to just happen. The separation from others that once felt so desperately lonely, now seems like the starting point for adventure and discovery.  I’m very relaxed these days about doing the work to former deeper relationships with people – in all kinds of contexts. I’m more relaxed about how I love and less worried what anyone will make of that. I’m interested in what can be shared and exchanged, not so much in what was similar to begin with.

I have no idea where this journey will take me next, but that’s part of the fun of it. I’ve experienced more recent shifts as moving into states that are more open and less loaded. Oddly this hasn’t dialled down the intensity, instead it’s made space in which far greater levels of intensity can be safely held and explored.


Crisis Tactics

One of the things it is common to lose to abuse is a sense of where your own edges need to be. Abusers will work to erode your confidence and self esteem, because when you don’t feel you can say no, you’re more vulnerable to their predations. Standing my ground, defending myself, flagging up problems and expressing distress all still put me in a place of expecting to be knocked down harder than I was by the initial problem. It’s hard to hold boundaries when you fear that protecting yourself will invite twice as much trouble.

I’m not living in that kind of environment any more. However, that knee-jerk reaction remains. If I need to express distress, then fear of what that will bring is with me. Until I’ve tested something like this, I don’t know how anyone will react to me – will they double down? To navigate this I’ve given myself a set of rules. Having established this rule set means that under pressure and feeling emotionally vulnerable, I have a set of defaults to work with.

One. I am entitled to say no to anyone for any reason and I am not obliged to justify that decision. If someone hurts me and I want to just back off and not deal with it, I am allowed to do that.

Two. If I express distress then there are a number of acceptable responses – anything with an element of care, concern, apology. Anything that accepts my response as valid even if it wasn’t where I was supposed to end up. Anyone kindly explaining why it wasn’t meant that way. Any kind of ‘oops’ or ‘oh shit’ noises. I may need further conversation to sort things out, but any of these responses are worth working with.

Three. If I express distress and am met with blame, criticism, mockery, dismissal, being told why I shouldn’t feel like that, being told why I ‘made them’ do it or why their position is justified, or anything else of this shape, I am entitled to end the conversation and step away from the person.

Four. How much slack I cut is totally up to me. How much I am willing to forgive is totally up to me.

Five. How much I love a person is not a reliable measure of that person’s inherent worth. If a person does not value me enough to care when they have upset me, then they do not merit the gift of my care and attention. I am allowed to feel that I have made a mistake in investing in them.

Six. How a person treats me when I am upset is not a measure of my worth – although it may well be a measure of my worth to them, which is not the same thing.


Unspeakable loneliness

How can you speak of it when it implies criticism of everyone you love? How can you say ‘I am lonely’ if you have a partner, or friends, or family, or all of those? But you can have people in your life and be lonely, and I think it needs talking about.

In any given 24 hour period, Tom and I spend something close to 24 hours together, waking and sleeping. We work at the same table. But, we work alone, usually in silence, each engaged with whatever we’re doing. Working in the same space isn’t time spent together, and it took us a while to learn that.

We both suffer from depression and anxiety. This means there are times when both of us need someone with the energy and ideas to break through our numbness and take us somewhere else. When we’re both ill, we can’t actually do that for each other. It is also a lot to ask that it falls only to your partner to wade in and rescue you when you have been kidnapped by the monsters in your head.

Depression and anxiety both, in their own ways, make it hard to ask for help. If you are feeling gloomy and worthless, how can you ask someone you like to spend time with that? How can you show up socially without a mask firmly in place to spare others? And if you socialise while masked, you will feel incredibly lonely. If anxiety is gnawing at you, then the fear of how anyone will respond to you making it visible is also going to be part of the mix.

Mental illness means you can be in a room full of people and totally unable to connect to them. It can mean you won’t let anyone see you as you are, and you experience the profound loneliness of being related to as you are not. It can mean being unable to go out at all, unable to speak, unable to reach out. So you may have hordes of lovely friends and just not know how to approach them when depression has its teeth around your throat. You probably don’t want to put them through seeing you like this. Maybe you don’t want to sabotage your own dignity by letting people see you when you are broken.

There are many potential causes of loneliness – and for many people isolation is central. But, a person can appear not to be isolated, and still be feeling really cut off. It may be very difficult to hear about loneliness from someone you think should feel close to you, but if anyone does talk to you about it, this is a sign of tremendous trust. Try not to be cross with them over how you might feel, because if they’ve come to you it’s likely because they think you are one of the few people who might not hate them for feeling as they do.


Being Vulnerable

Staying open, staying available, being willing to trust sometimes, being open to being touched… this is all difficult territory for me and has been so for a long time. These are the places my anxiety builds its nests. None of it is irrational. Without exception, it is people I have let get close to me who have done me the most damage. The idea of being vulnerable can suggest something truly threatening.

But, to connect with another person in any way means taking off at least some of the armour, retracting the spikes, not waiting for the blow to land. The question is, when to do that? Who to trust? When to decide that it’s worth admitting where I feel fragile and exposed, where things are difficult for me, what I feel keenly.

I know from bitter and repeated experience that sometimes, when you show someone where you are vulnerable, they will stick claws into that part of you and start tearing. And until you have shown them that openness, they probably won’t show you those claws, or their willingness to use them.

There have been a number of rounds this year of getting this right. Trusting the right people. Picking a passably good time to drop guard. With the right people, vulnerability opens the door to magical possibility. Sometimes people come back and are vulnerable in return, sharing their own truths, difficulties and tender spots. When that happens, the whole quality of the relationship shifts. Deeper trust becomes more available.

I think I’ve got better too at venturing small acts of trust that don’t leave me over-exposed, and then judging the results. There are things I have learned to look for – the people who come back with some sign of care, or empathy, or who are simply glad to have been trusted, or open up and share their own story in return. I also look out for people who respond competitively with a ‘my problems are worse than yours’ approach. I watch out for anything dismissive, careless, disinterested. If anyone puts me down at this point, calls me a drama queen or anything of that ilk, I no longer take that as a measure of me, but a measure of them. I put my armour back on and I go away.

I’ve started trusting my gut feelings more on this one as well. We take in more information than we can consciously process, and a gut-feeling is not an irrational thing. The more I trust my gut feelings about people the better I do around deciding who to trust, and when to keep my armour firmly in place. I deal with a lot of people in the normal scheme of things, increasingly I make snap decisions about who to let in and who to keep at arm’s length. Thus far, these have gone well for me. I’ve jumped into some very heart open interactions. I can’t prove that the people I kept at arm’s length it was as well to – but then I don’t have to, I am not (and it’s taken me a long time to realise this) obliged to justify these choices to anyone.


Down Days – Further

Yesterday I posted a review of Down Days by Craig Hallam. I read the book a little ahead of that and have had time to think about it beyond the reviewing process. It’s taken me some interesting places. I’ve only had dealings with the medical profession in the last decade about depression, and only in that time frame have I used the term confidently with regards to myself. I didn’t get much help, which played into my anxieties about how I make a fuss and over-react.

Reading Craig’s book, several things struck me. That he’s talking about down days, with some longer patches of being mired in depression. One of the blocks for me, to taking my mental health seriously is that I’ve always been able to keep going, to get out of bed, to push through and do whatever was important. So I’d been taking that to mean that in the grand scheme of things, I probably wasn’t suffering that much. I don’t have down days. I rarely have days where depression isn’t with me – perhaps only as a low level hum in the background, but definitely almost always there.

I’d not really treated that as meaningful.

Craig talks really well about living with depression, that it is something he’s going to have to manage for the longer term, not something he might ever be truly free from. I realised I’d been holding the belief that I should be able to fix this. If I try harder, make better choices, do the right things… that it is a failing on my part and something I ought to fix. Reading Down Days made me consider that perhaps this isn’t the size of it, and that I might treat myself more kindly if I put those beliefs down. And also that treating myself kindly might be more helpful than pushing for a fix.

When was I not depressed? Thinking about the symptoms, it goes right back for me. When was I not anxious? And when did I ever feel like my discomfort, my fear and my distress actually mattered? Even since I started trying to sort myself out and acknowledging that there’s a problem, I’ve not thought about it in terms of being entitled to feel better than this. I’ve thought about it as being less of a nuisance. And that’s probably not helping. In the background noise remains the fear that I’m making a fuss, being unreasonable, and if I act like any of this matters, it would be fair to tell me off and put more pressure on me.

For the last ten years or so, it’s been about trying harder. Being more mentally disciplined and controlling my thoughts. Risk assessing my anxiety to stop myself taking it seriously. It came as a bit of a shock to me to consider that being kinder to myself might be the key thing to being more mentally well. That maybe it would be ok to be kinder to me. That this would not make me a horrible, selfish awful person. That I might be entitled to be passably comfortable, not deserving to drown in misery. These are big thoughts, it’s going to take a while to adjust to them.

More about Down Days here – https://www.inspired-quill.com/product/down-days/


Learning to like myself

For most of my life, I’ve not much liked myself. I mistrust my judgement and my motives. I feel I have to justify my choices. I never feel like I’m doing enough, giving enough and that alongside this I am a mostly inconvenient nuisance. Worrying about what I cost financially goes back a long way. Aged eleven I started keeping a diary because it helped me ascertain whether I could justify my existence on a day to day basis. I worry about being fake and fraudulent and making too much fuss and not being stoical enough and not working hard enough. I don’t like my face or my body shape either and there are lots of ways in which my body is a difficult place to be.

(And I wonder, when I share things like this if anyone is going to have a go at me for being attention seeking, or feeling sorry for myself, or not trying harder to be positive… because that all happens.)

Just in this last year or so, I’ve started having small windows of something entirely different. Usually it’s prompted by something I’ve done that has demonstrably gone well. I get bursts of time when I think I’m a decent person and that it is possible to enjoy being me. It is surprising, and the impact in terms of my feelings of wellbeing is dramatic. It also gives me some sense of what it might be like to go round feeling like a good person who is entitled to exist and be happy.

Depression has been with me for a long time. It may be with me for the rest of my life. But, these windows of getting to feel ok are dramatic and remarkable things. I really had no idea that was available. Prior to experiencing it, I did not imagine it existed, and I did not know that I was not even seeing that could be a thing. If I can do it for a few hours here and there, perhaps I can do more of it. Perhaps I can get to a place of not mostly feeling bad about who and how I am. Perhaps I can do enough things I can feel that good about that the impact continues for longer. I don’t know, but it feels worth trying.


Self Care and Relationships

My guess is that if you have good self esteem and a sense of self worth, then you’ll be more confident about when to step away from people. I’ve been paying attention to my own processes around this in recent weeks and have noticed some patterns I thought it might be helpful to share.

If something goes wrong and I express distress, there’s a small window where things can be ok. If the other person comes back with care and concern then I can work things through and it’s usually fine. Now, if I was watching a friend in this situation, and they expressed distress and the person who had caused it doubled down on them, I would have no qualms saying ‘get out of there, this person does not have your best interests at heart’. When it’s me, other things happen.

I think it’s my fault. I think I’ve done something wrong and brought it upon myself. I think it’s fair and deserved. Probably I wasn’t trying hard enough or giving enough. I should make more effort to be patient, generous, accommodating and forgiving. So when someone hurts me, if they don’t back off from that quickly I can end up trying harder to be nicer to them and feeling like a total failure while I’m doing it. I’ve got to the point where I can see myself doing it and I know it’s not good for me, but I still can’t stop the thoughts that come.

I find it difficult to step away from people. Even when I know they are harming me, a feeling of guilt can stay with me for years afterwards. I’m working on this. There are a lot of unhelpful places my brain goes when people double down on hurting me. It builds my expectation that any expression of distress on my part will be met with further punishment. I fight against feeling that people will hate me, blame me and want to knock me down for daring to say ‘ouch’. I find it really hard to trust people not to hate me.

Even when I’m not triggered into all the places this takes me, it remains in the mix. I’ve got to trust a person a great deal to express distress to them. I’ve got to value a person a great deal to give them the opportunity to double down on me. When it’s people I barely know, I just slink off – because I can manage that much self care, and the stress of raising discomfort with people is high.

When people respond to distress by telling me why it’s my fault, or justifying it, that sends me off to some really dark places. It brings up other, older, nastier hurts that I was told were my fault, one way or another. I can become unable to escape from those memories in the short term. Classic PTSD triggering.

I want to be someone who is reliably kind, patient and generous. I want to forgive everyone’s mistakes and shortcomings and I feel a deep sense of obligation to be nice to people who hurt me. I also know that this way lies madness, in a rather literal sense. I know that if I stay in there for too long with someone who keeps hurting me, I will end up in serious trouble. Self care means saying no to people around this stuff. If I put my own comfort first, saying no the first time someone doesn’t respond in the way I need them to would be the way to go. But the weight of the guilt is terrible.

I have a hard time accepting that I cannot be a good and kind friend to a person who triggers me and makes me ill. I feel like a failure every time I run into that. I feel like they are entitled to more from me. Even though I don’t have that to give. I want the people who care if I am hurt, and I want to feel entitled to only really deal with people who care about me, and not to feel obliged to care about who don’t reciprocate, but there’s a lot of old training to deal with here and it will take time.


Adventures in consent

I’ve been thinking a lot in the last year or so about how to do consent more effectively.

One of the features of rape culture is the idea that it’s humiliating and painful for a man to get a ‘no’ from a woman, and that therefore it might be preferable not to ask. This of course is no kind of real consent. Inferred consent doesn’t mean someone consented. Pushy approaches can leave the person on the other end feeling threatened and that it is safer to go along than to resist. Rape can often be survived, murder less so. Ignoring the need for consent sends a clear message that this is not a safe situation.

One of my approaches to this has been to get into conversations with people about how we do, or do not do touch. I’m not reliably good around physical affection. I hate being touched unexpectedly by most people, and the vast majority of people I don’t want to touch at all. But, people I really like, I want to be able to be affectionate with. So I talk about it. That’s been going really well.

There have been a few people in the past who responded badly to my talking about it – guys who insisted that they kiss everyone and it should therefore be fine, and who weren’t willing to try and not do that to me even though it was causing panic attacks. It took me a while to truly realise I don’t have to accept that. I’ve had far more really brilliant conversations about boundaries and history, and it hasn’t been all about my own limitations, either.

In the last year or so, I’ve entered into situations repeatedly where I’ve been the one offering, and I’ve offered on the understanding that ‘no’ might be what came back. Is it humiliating? No, it is not. These are people I really care about, who for various reasons aren’t always in a place to say yes to a hug, or a kiss on the cheek. These are people whose comfort is more important to me than whether they say yes to me. One of the things I’ve learned from this is that making it totally safe to say ‘no’ creates an intimacy of its own. That can be a very rich and beautiful experience. It can be powerful, in a good sort of way, to offer and be turned down, and to be fine with that.

If you’ve felt unsafe, if your ‘no’ was unheard or there was never even space for it, this more deliberate space to say no, is needed, and good. Room to say no is a gift to offer someone whose ‘no’ has been ignored. Coming at this as someone who has had their ‘no’ ignored in all kinds of ways, offering someone else the freedom to say no also feels powerful. I find when I feel I can say no, I am more likely to eventually say yes. Nothing kills my fondness for a person like being forced into physical contact. Nothing feeds the warmth and respect I feel for a person like being able to talk this all through and agree where the edges are.


Understanding the mechanics

One of my key coping mechanisms is to try and understand how things work for me. It’s the approach I take any time I’m digging into areas of dysfunction. Why am I like this? How did I get here? Why am I responding in these ways? What can be changed? Once I’ve figured the mechanisms for something, I often blog about it in the hopes someone else will find that useful.

I’ve used these approaches to unpick beliefs and assumptions. I’ve dealt to some degree with an abuse legacy this way. I’ve pulled myself out of patterns of self-harm and self hate. It’s not easy work, but it definitely gets stuff done.

I try it with my body issues too, with varying degrees of effect. By experimenting on myself and paying attention, I’ve identified that I need to keep an eye on my iodine intake. I need to watch for electrolytes when my gut packs up. My gut packs up less often now I’m vegetarian – being an omnivore didn’t suit me. I can’t eat a lot of refined grains or my gut malfunctions. I can’t ingest cloves. I’ve got coping mechanisms in place for my cranky lymphs, and for the things that leave my body stiff and sore. So long as I pay careful attention to a lot of different factors I can, for much of the time, feel more in control of myself.

And then there are days like today, when many of the things that can go wrong have gone wrong. I can’t pin down any triggers. There are problems with conflicting solutions. I’m exhausted and need to rest. My lymphs are cranky and I need to get on the trampoline. My muscles are painfully sore anyway. I’ve got crazy hormone stuff going on. All of this has mental health implications. There’s no winning here.

I go round this repeatedly, studying the mechanics of my body, gaining some ground, managing better. And then, sooner or later, I get hit by a combination of things I didn’t manage to guard against and can’t easily fix, and then there can be some very tough days.

I find it difficult to accept that there might not be a solution. I suspect one of the kindest things I could do for myself would be to accept that there might not be a solution. There might not be a way of avoiding this. There might not be some perfect combination of foods avoided, exercises done, supplements taken, relaxation practices and so forth. It may be that this is what happens to me.

Talking about it is difficult because there’s usually someone who wants to tell me what they think I should change. That I should be gluten free, or not eating anything from the tomato family, or that I need to take something, or not take something, do more or less of something. I find this exhausting. I find the assumption that I would be well if only I did the thing depressing. I do try really hard with this stuff, all the time. I pay attention, I experiment. There’s only so much control I’ve ever been able to get.

No doubt, offering advice feels like being a good and helpful person. But, for the person who is struggling, it can be just one more thing to have to carry, or fend off. It’s a way of saying yes, this is your body and you live with it day to day but I reckon my two minutes of thinking about it means I understand it better than you do. That’s demoralising at best. Unsolicited, unwanted ‘help’ can have the effect of grinding a person down. And if you don’t know all the details and aren’t a qualified medical person, the ‘help’ can do more harm than good.

It would be more helpful to me to have affirmation that it is not my fault that sometimes my body malfunctions. What I do find helpful is the emotional support to take things gently. The encouragement to not blame myself. Permission to just have some time off and not have to be all the things. Kindness is good. And letting me be the one to say ‘no, there’s nothing I can do with this today’ is far more empowering than trying to fix me.